Small Claims Mediation Services

A Treasure To Be Told

by Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson,
Leon County Judge; Member, Supreme
Court Mediation Training Review
Board, by appointment of Chief Justice
Charles T. Canady; and TWL Member and Past President.

by Dr. Mark Palmquist, Retired Director,
County Court Mediation Program,
2nd Judicial Circuit of Florida.

One of the treasures of the 2nd Judicial Circuit of Florida is its dutiful, enthusiastic and dedicated team of approximately 45 Florida Supreme Court certified volunteer county court mediators that serve Leon, Gadsden and Wakulla counties.

Every Tuesday morning, between 20 to 25 mediators arrive at the Leon County Court Annex on Thomasville Road to serve their community by offering their professional services to assist parties in the resolution of their disputes. Although pre trial mediation starts in Leon County at 9:00 a.m., the mediators begin appearing before 8:00 a.m. to meet in a large conference room on the second floor. They discuss a myriad of topics including best practices gained from their individual experiences, or use the time to receive continuing mediation education.

Well over half of the county mediators have served more than 10 years as volunteers. The parties that come before these mediators are benefiting from their vast experience and recurring training. Approximately 84% of the recent small claims cases that are filed in Leon County's small claims court are resolved by these highly skilled mediators. They serve the parties and the court with out charging a fee, offering their time and expertise as a community service to citizens, the courts, and the communities of Leon, Gadsden and Wakulla Counties.

This article is intended to shine some light on county court mediation services, its history, and some of the dedicated individuals who helped lay a strong foundation for the tremendous success of the program.

Leon County History

County court mediation services began in June of 1985 when Leon County Judge Hal McClamma and the Trial Court Administrator Dozier Allen formulated the program. 2nd Judicial Circuit of Florida Chief Judge Donald 0. Hartwell signed Administrative Order Number 85-31 on July 11, 1985, thereby officially creating the "Leon County Dispute Settlement Program."

The late Jack Blanton served as Director of Mediation Services from June of 1985 until his passing in December of 1995. In January of 1996, Dr. Mark Palmquist as sumed the duties of Director, further enhancing the program by recruiting more mediators and expanding educational activities and training.

In 2000, then-Chief Judge George Reynolds III moved mediation services from the main Leon County Courthouse to the present location of the Court Annex on Thomasville Road. Dr. Palmquist retired in May, 2011. In recognition of his outstanding service, the conference room where the mediators meet at the Annex has been dedicated in Dr. Palmquist's name, with the plaque adorning the wall inscribed with his favorite salutation, "Peace to the Peacemaker."

The current coordinator is Susan Marvin, Esq. The Alternative Dispute Resolution Director is Jennifer Hodges. The current Chief Judge, Charles A. Francis, has continued
to fully support the mediators and their program. Mr. Grant Slayden is the Trial Court Administrator and has overall responsibility for Mediation Services.

Both Chief Judge Francis and Grant Slayden, with significant assistance from Leon County Administrators Parwez Alam and Vince Long, were instrumental in creating brand new and expanded county mediation space for mediations, caucuses, meetings, and training. The current Clerk of Court, Bob Inzer, has expanded the breadth of information available to parties about mediation ser vices by including extremely helpful information about the process on the Clerk of Court's website, including some form pleadings available to the public for free.

Some of the very first county court volunteer mediators included: Thomas Brushwood, Phillip Stuart, Peter Durland, Esq., former director of the Wakulla County Mediation program Don Pace, Jack Blanton (deceased), Glenn Boggs, Arlan Bowen (d), Joe Dzio, Jon Davidson, John Davis, Jack T. Dobson, Ernest Doster, Peter Durland, John Goldinger, Robert Henderson, John Hutchinson, Gerald Jahoda (d), Pat Jahoda, Tom Lightsey, Edward Malo (d), Bradley Munroe, Jean Worth Owen, Mark Palmquist, Rissette Posey, Jack Overstreet, David Ramba, Cheryl P. Rose, Madelon Rossner, Bill Salmon, Warren Schave, Pat Shafer, Pat Thornburg (d), Ric Thornburg, Don Tobin, and George Woerner (d).

Other volunteers that followed included: Ann Anthony, Gary Callaway, Larry Cerro, John Cottone, Ed Dunley, David Ferguson, Sally Gandy, Fred Goodrow, Bob Greenberg, Joan Guilday, Bonnie Holub, Bill Jones, Dan King, John Lensch, Grant Logan, Gerald Lewis, Bonnie Marmor, Stephanie McHardy, June McKinney, Hank Nash, Carolyn Palmquist, David Pargman, Marsha Pargman, Dorys Penton, Lucy Pride, Willis Rabon, Earnestine Reschard, Dick Saunders, Rebekah Shuler, Louis Schwartz, Rhea Schwartz, Grant Slayden, James Taylor, Richard Tritschler, Roger Walton, Richard Woerner, David Wolfson, and David Young.

Small Claims Cases

Typical cases referred to volunteer county mediation are civil small claims cases. These are cases filed in county court to settle legal disputes between parties where the dollar amount at issue is $5,000 or less, excluding costs, interest, and attorneys fees. See Rule 7.160, Florida Small Claims Rules. Case types include landlord tenant; contract; recovery of money/property; auto repair; consumer claims; and property damage.

After the filing of a small claims case, each person or business sued must be served
with a Summons or Notice to Appear in court for a pretrial conference. At the pretrial conference, the county judge has discretion to offer mediation services if both parties to the dispute are present, have full negotiating authority, are unable to settle their dispute, and agree to attend mediation. If the judge refers the case to mediation, the mediator takes the parties to a private room specially designed for mediation during the Annex's renovation.

Many of the parties attend the mediation unrepresented by counsel and find the mediators involvement extremely helpful in facilitating a resolution of the dispute in an in formal and non-adversarial setting. If the dispute cannot be settled, the parties will be brought back to the courtroom where the judge will go over the pre-trial order and schedule a trial date.

High Success Rate at Mediation

It was evident from the very beginning of the program that mediation was a beneficial tool in resolving the high volume of small claim cases filed in county court. For instance, in 1985, 11 volunteer mediators settled 117 cases out of 166 cases assigned for a 70% settlement rate. No statistical records were kept for Wakulla County from 1992 to 2003, but the coordinator at that time, Dr. Palmquist, indicates that at least one thousand cases were resolved during those years. In 2004, there were 1,398 cases referred to mediation, 1,157 of which were resolved at the mediation table. At the end of December, 2010, mediation services documented over 17,966 cases settled out of 24,320 cases for an average settlement rate of 74%. The settlement rate as of August 2011 is an outstanding 84%!

If one were to place a monetary value on the hours expended in just 2010, for instance, to determine a dollar value of donated services, it would add up as follows: If $125 per hour where applied to the 3,400 hours expended by the mediators, the result would be $425,000 donated in mediation services in 2010 alone! This is a tremendous savings to the parties and the courts.

Benefits of Mediation

Mediation is actively encouraged by the county judges in the 2nd Judicial Circuit. The role of the mediator is to reduce obstacles to communication, assist in the identification of issues and exploration of alternatives, and otherwise facilitate voluntary agreements resolving the dispute. The ultimate decision making authority, however, solely with the parties. Rule 10.220, Florida Supreme Rules for Certified and Appointed Mediators.

Some of the benefits of small claims mediation are as follows:

  1. small claims mediation services are free to the parties;
  2. it is economical both in time and money, since a typical case is resolved after one court date;
  3. it is a consensual process, so the settlement achieved is generally viewed as fair by both parties;
  4. all mediation discussions are confidential except where disclosure is required by law;
  5. issues, needs and interests of the parties that may not be considered relevant at trial can be openly discussed;
  6. parties can explore and work out creative settlement terms, such as bartering or exchange of goods and services;
  7. trial preparation such as conducting discovery, deposing individuals, subpoenaing evidence or witnesses are eliminated;
  8. preserves personal and business relationships;
  9. allows debtors to arrange repayment plans, avoid a judgment, and preserve credit reputation;
  10. risks and uncertainty as sociated with trials are avoided;
  11. protects privacy and avoids possible publicity of trial; and
  12. helps reduce the court system's over burdened case load.

Training Requirements

Pursuant to Article V, Section 2(a) of the Florida Constitution and Chapter 44, F.S., the Supreme Court of Florida has the responsibility for certifying all persons who are eligible to receive court referrals for mediation. The Supreme Court adopted rules 10.100, 10.105 and 10.110, Florida Rules for Certified and Court-Appointed Mediators, and Administrative Order AOSC 11.

Generally, becoming a county court mediator in Florida requires the person be at least 21 years of age, of good moral character, with an education (a high school diploma or G.E.D. being the minimum), completion of training certified by the Supreme Court of Florida, and participation in a mentorship program.

The Florida Supreme Court released Opinion SCO5-998 amending the qualifications required to be a mediator effective August 1, 2006. The changes now allow
certification to be based on a flexible system that allows "points" to be credited in the
following areas:
Training (30 points),
Education / Experience (10 points),
Mentorship (60 points, with each observation worth 5 points, and each comediation worth 10 points).
All candidates for court-appointed mediator must submit an application to the Supreme Court of Florida Dispute Resolution Center. An excellent resource on training prepared by the Center is Florida State Courts: How to Become a Florida Supreme Court Cert led Mediator (A Step-By-Step Guide), revised Feb. 16, 2011, which may be found at under "Alternative Dispute Resolution."